14 min read

[SUBSTACK ARCHIVE] #1: Interview with an Anarchist Pollyanna

Kim Kelly, lover of utopian vibes

Hello readers! 👋🏽 Welcome to Labor Pains! I’m trying to figure out a way to convey the title with emojis, but I’m not quite there yet.

First things first: I’m Aria. Here’s an introduction!

OK now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to what you’re really here for.

Kim Kelly is an independent journalist, organizer and third generation union member based in Philadelphia. She used be an editor at VICE’s music vertical, Noisey, but was laid off in 2019. After her layoff, she moved from New York to Philadelphia, where she’s been ever since. Kim was kind enough to talk to me about life in Philly, talking to congressional staffers on Capitol Hill and the “horrible and important” work of reporting on occupational health hazards. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A portrait of Kim Kelly, an author, photographed from the waist up standing in front of a bookshelf with her book, Fight Like Hell, featured prominently but slightly out of focus over her left shoulder. Kim is a white woman with reddish brown hair styled into two French braids. She has numerous facial piercings and tattoos on her arms, including one of a molotov cocktail and another of a guillotine. She is wearing a sleeveless black t-shirt that says “Black Lung Kills” across the chest.
(Photo courtesy of Kim Kelly)

Aria Velasquez: You’ve been in Philly for how many years now?

Kim Kelly: I think this is year four. I moved down here kind of accidentally in 2019 in the spring because I had gotten laid off from VICE and broken up with some guy. And all signs seemed to be pointing to, “Take your ass back to Philly for the summer and figure things out.” And then COVID showed up and it was like, “Oh no, you live here now.” And I was like, “Oh, OK. So I do.”

AV: For some reason I thought that you had moved to Philadelphia later than that, like sometime in early- to mid-2020. I didn’t realize it had been four years. But that’s cool. And also interesting to know your reasoning. But I figured you were going to Philly because there was more labor stuff to cover there that doesn’t get the same exposure as New York.

KK: I wish it had been that noble of a thought! But I’m from Jersey, I went to school here, Philly’s been my second home forever. It’s always been in the back of my head like, “Well, I can always move back to Philly.” I had been in New York for 10 years and I came down here honestly to take a break, because everything had kinda fallen apart in my life at that point. My best friend lives here, my parents are across the bridge, all my old homies are here. Philly is easy. And it is cool to be in a place that isn’t New York City. It has its own culture, its own politics, its own things going on. And [it] has a very understandable chip on its shoulder about how little attention we get compared to the New Yorks and the LAs. […] We have a different vibe than New York or DC. We’re complicated, we are not as glitzy, but we have some good shit. Philly rules, it’s the best.

AV: I noticed recently you were at the UWUA (Utility Workers Union of America) convention. Can you tell me more about that?

KK: I’m at a point in my supposed existence-slash-career where sometimes I get invited to go to union conventions to give little talks or speeches to their members. And I try and add a little history, add a little personal stuff, add some appreciation for what they do. I like public speaking, I like giving speeches. Especially to groups of workers, especially to unions like the UWUA like utility workers. That’s a very blue collar kind of union. I felt very comfortable with those folks. My family all were construction. That’s kind of the world that I grew up in, so I’m always so much more comfortable in those contexts…. A couple months ago, I went and spoke on a Harvard Law panel. And that was fucking weird. It was cool, and I was grateful for the opportunity, of course. But given the choice I would always much rather talk to a lineman or a sanitation worker than someone with a “doctor” in front of their name. I’m just some redneck who learned how to write pretty good. I don’t fit into the more rarefied atmospheres. I like talking to regular people who are also brilliant and creative and talented who see me.

AV: But also I would say the rarefied atmospheres need to hear more people with your voice. Like your investigation from In These Times, the black lung investigation you published a couple months ago. You went to talk about that in DC!

I lucked out because a lot of the folks I talked to, the staffers especially, were already kind of aware of my work or my whole deal. Which is weird to hear that! The last thing you want is the government saying, “Oh yeah, we know about you!”

KK: Yeah that was wacky! It went a lot better than I had anticipated, because honestly I didn’t know what to anticipate. I had never reached out to political leaders or their offices about something I had written before. I didn’t really know that was something you were supposed to do. But my editors at In These Times had encouraged me to do that, specifically because there was a legislative point to that. There is an updated silica standard that’s winding its way through the halls of bureaucracy right now. And they thought if I went and spoke to those folks it might help to give it a little push. So I met with staffers from the offices of Senator Fetterman and Sanders, of course. And Manchin, which was interesting. And also sat down with Ro Khanna from California and talked to some folks from Congresswoman Summer Lee’s office and also talked to some folks from the Democrats on the House Committee on Education & the Workforce. So I was busy! […] It seemed like I got through to some people. Some folks were really eager to support the miners in whatever capacity they were able. And I guess I learned a little bit about how these things work, like how to get those kinds of people to pay attention to you and also how valuable it is. I lucked out because a lot of the folks I talked to, the staffers especially, were already kind of aware of my work or my whole deal. Which is weird to hear that! The last thing you want is the government saying, “Oh yeah, we know about you!” Oh boy…. That was kind of validating in a strange sort of way, because I was talking to Bernie’s labor lead or a health policy person for Senator Machin, people who actually can impact things in a real way. It was satisfying.

AV: So can you tell me more about how your black lung investigation came to fruition? That’s something that I kept thinking about as I was reading, “How did this even happen?” I know that you mentioned before that you grandfather was a miner. Do I have that right?

KK: No, he was a steel worker.

AV: Steel worker, I’m sorry!

KK: So the piece where my granddad comes into play, that was one of the more personal animating forces behind writing this story and getting involved in this whole situation. My granddad was s steel worker. He was millwright in a factory in Jersey for 40 years, and that factory was full of asbestos as a lot of places were during that period of time. After 40 years of breathing that in, he retired, went about his life and then when he hit his 80s, he started having problems breathing. He ended up dying of mesothelioma, which is a type of lung cancer connected to breathing in asbestos. And it’s the kind of thing that shows up 40 years after exposure; it lies in wait. I remember telling my friend Danny Whitt, who is a retired coal miner from Mingo County, West Virginia, who has black lung and has had it for my entire life. And he was like, “Oh, OK. We call that white lung.” I remember just being so struck by how interconnected those two different struggles are and how interconnected all of those workers’ occupational health issues are. Because if we talk about black lung, we can talk about white lung, right? Or we can talk about brown lung, the byssinosis that garment workers in LA are dealing with as they breathe in cotton dust in the air while they’re working on $5 fast fashion t-shirts. Everything’s very connected.

AV: The silica dust that garment workers overseas breathe in while they’re doing distressed and sandblasted jeans, for example.

KK: Yeah. Well silica is animating the whole black lung crisis here, too. Silica is the real motherfucker. I should try not to say things like that. Silica is… silica is an incredibly toxic substance.

AV: Don’t worry there’s no FCC violations happening here. You can curse as much as you want.

KK: Oh that’s right. I did college radio, so it’s always in the back of my head. “Oh no, that was like $10,000.” But yeah, in terms of wanting to sit down and do this story, I’ve been covering coal miners for a couple of years following a specific strike in Alabama, the Warrior Met Strike. And just getting close to a bunch of coal miners from different places, different ages, different genders, different experiences. One of my buddies, Chuck […] he just mentioned something about younger guys like guys around our age who he knew were getting sick. He was saying, “You know I haven’t gotten tested, but I know my breathing ain’t right. I know I have something going on, I’m sure I have black lung.” Cause he spent 20 years in the mines, and he’s only a couple years older than me. That really shook me. […] And I thought, “OK well I have to look into this.” And the more I dug into it the more it became apparent [that this is] something that’s been going on for years. I reached out to In These Times, because they have these grants from the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting. They have these grants you can apply for that will give you […] some money to travel and to really work on an in-depth story. I got to spend a lot of time digging into this. [I was] talking to so many different people, doing so many interviews, tracking down people at the Department of Labor and talking to epidemiologists. Just really going for it in a way that I hadn’t really had the luxury of doing before because I’m freelance. You don’t necessarily get to do these types of big investigations when you don’t have institutional support. I couldn’t have done it without In These Times. I wrote the story, and they edited the bejeezus out of it, and now it’s been out for a little while. I think this is just one of my new niches. I keep collecting niches. Somebody emailed me after it went live and they said that my work was “horrible and important.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s my beat.” […] You know, sometimes the most depressing shit is the most important stuff to write about and force people to look at.

I think this is just one of my new niches. I keep collecting niches.

AV: Yes. It absolutely is. As depressing as it is, people need to know about it because that’s how change happens eventually, hopefully, fingers crossed?

KK: And that’s how you save lives. I know that one of the folks I interviewed for the story who was really instrumental in connecting me with folks…. He would hate this characterization, but he’s basically the Erin Brockovich of black lung. He’s an incredible advocate and lawyer called Sam Petsonk. He told me he ordered a bunch of different copies to hand out to the miners and clients he’s working with. It’s probably too late for a lot of the folks he’s working with, because he works with black lung cases. But if somebody’s brother picks up that article and reads it and decides to get a different job or to put on his respirator a little more tightly that day then that’s a win!

AV: That’s a really encouraging way to look at it. Cause I think it’s very easy to get bogged down in the “this is terrible, everything is bad” mindset. That’s a very easy spiral to fall into. But you bringing that up as a potential bright side really just reframed some things for me.

KK: I’m a little bit of a Pollyanna about these things. Maybe it’s because I’m an anarchist. We love the utopian vibes. But there’s always something good you can pull out of something horrible. Or you can take something horrible and find a way to make it useful at least.

AV: I guess that kinda spills into the next question: What inspires you to keep going? Because right now it feels like there is this cresting wave of fascism that’s kinda hovering over everything and eventually all waves crash. And I find myself thinking about that a lot. Like “OK, this isn’t going anywhere.” To keep with the ocean analogy, this is not just going to recede back into the waters, this is gonna come down hard. It already is coming down hard on a lot of people. And so I’m wondering how you keep your head up and keep going whenever it feels like “OK we’re entering the worst part and we don’t know if or when or how long it will be until we see the better part.”

I’m a little bit of a Pollyanna about these things. Maybe it’s because I’m an anarchist.

KK: I believe in people. I don’t want that to sound hokey or hippy dippy or like some kumbaya nonsense. But just in a very practical sense this current wave of fascism that’s about to crash upon our heads? That’s not new. There are so many people who, by dint of who they are or how they were born or how they look or whatever other factors that contribute to their identity, have been living under essentially fascist regimes since the jump. Some people have always had it better than others. Even if we’ve made some advances, there’s still people who have been living miserable oppressed lives in this country. And just because the New York Times and Washington Post are getting a little anxious about it now, that don’t mean regular people, working class people, poor people haven’t already known that everything’s fucked. When you see these sort of panicked reactions to reports of child labor laws being rolled back in Arkansas and other places. Like “Oh no, child labor! We’re going back a hundred years!” […] Who do you think is picking your grapes and your strawberries? Everything that people fear happening has kind of already happened to some people here or in other countries, whether the US has caused it or if we kinda sat back and watched. […] I have so much faith in the power of people to collectively organize and take care of their own. I have no interest or confidence in the power of the government or these elitist institutions that we’re supposed to respect and kowtow to. The Supreme Court can go fuck itself. I don’t believe in God and I don’t believe in wizards. I don’t care what some freak in a robe said to me about my personhood or my autonomy. I’m gonna do what I need to do to survive. And I think a lot of people feel that way. And knowing that gives me hope and makes me feel just a little better about our chances.

AV: Are there any major projects that are coming up that you want to shamelessly plug or brag about? I know your book comes out on paperback later this month. You have the really cool Fight Like Hell t-shirt….1 Is there anything else?

KK: Let me think… It’s not announced announced, but whatever. I’ve been working on this book project for the past few months, essentially a young readers edition of Fight Like Hell. I think we’re just waiting to get the cover finished. That’s been interesting, trying to figure out how to adapt my giant radical labor history book into something that’s more digestible for people from the ages of 10 to 14. It’s been harder than I thought, but it’s been interesting and it’s been fun, too. After I finally finish that, I have to get my next book proposal figured out. I have to trick some publisher into letting me do this again. I’m gonna start doing more writing for In These Times…. And I’m still freelancing and writing as much as possible. I also need a little bit of a break. I think in November or December maybe I’ll take a break. I’ve been traveling so much for work, for speaking stuff, for book tours. I’m planning a West Coast book tour! I’m gonna be in Seattle, Portland, the Bay Area, LA and then San Diego. So I’m just figuring all that out right now. Then, I come home and then I’m gonna go overseas to London, go to an antifascist metal festival in Switzerland, and start doing some research for my next book. So you know, no rest for the wicked!

AV: Cool! What’s your next book gonna be about?

KK: That’s a secret. I gotta sell it first. It might surprise people, but it might not. I’ll keep it cryptic.

AV: I hope it sells quickly, and I look forward to reading it either way. Last question: What labor battles on the horizon do you think we should be paying the most attention to?

KK: I guess the easy answer is all of them. But I can’t even do that and that’s my job. I mean— I’m sure gonna get a ton of coverage as it should: The UAW contract fight coming up. That’s gonna be a big one. We still have so much happening with the Starbucks workers. We still have my union, the Writers Guild of America, on strike. We’re coming up on our hundredth day.

AV: I think it’s supposed to hit 100 days later this week. Wednesday or Thursday, I think?

KK: Yeah, we’re getting there. And of course, our siblings at SAG-AFTRA are out there with us. And then there’s just a million other things going on that I’m keeping an eye on. Like negotiations with dockworkers in California or a potential strike at a sugar factory in Idaho. Or what’s going on with a strip club in Portland that’s trying to unionize. There’s always a million stories out there, and it pains me that I can’t cover them all. But I feel like there are enough people that are paying attention to labor now that I can pull back a little bit and pay attention to stories that get a little bit less attention. There’s always something happening, and I guess it’s just up to all of us to pay as much attention as we can.

AV: That’s a great way to put it. Any parting words?

KK: Yeah: Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

There’s a whole list of people I need to thank for making this newsletter happen. Yes, writing it is a one-woman show (for now), but I didn’t just wake up and start typing one day. I first had the idea for a newsletter about organized labor in the media and entertainment industries last November, but I talked myself out of pursuing it for [waves hand] reasons. The instability of the media industry this year made me revisit the idea, expand my scope and finally launch after a bunch of pep talks and group chat threads. Those people deserve some recognition. In no particular order…

  • Ryan Smith, who came up with the name.
  • Emily Backus, who always tells me “You rock!” and means it.
  • Taylor M. Thomas, who has told me on numerous occasions “You would be so good at that!” I’m trying to take your words to heart.
  • Lauren C. Williams, who has been sending me links with “Newsletter fodder” as the only context ever since I told her about this idea.
  • Carimah Townes, who was one of my first examples of taking a huge leap of faith.
  • Catherine Backus, who has some of the best quips and cat photos.
  • Wyatt Coday, who has been gently nudging me for over a year to reconsider my professional attachment to the media industry.
  • Ashley Trawick, who always reminds me to dream big.
  • Gabe Schneider and the whole crew at The Objective.
  • Meghin Moore, who I DM’d accidentally about this idea because I got her confused with someone else with the same surname but she encouraged me nonetheless!
  • My therapist, who may or may not be subscribed to this?
  • Juwan J. Holmes
  • Nitish Pahwa
  • Zack Smith
  • Aaron Tremper
  • Wudan Yan, Jenni Gritters and everyone in the Writers’ Co-op Slack whose advice usually boils down to “Just start” and “Don’t panic.” You’re all correct, but I’m still going to hesitate and panic. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
  • Every single person who signed up for this on the strength of a link I posted on Instagram, LinkedIn or Slack. There are over 100 of you here right now and that’s kind of mind-boggling.

Thanks for reading. See y’all next time!

  1. Unlike your favorite Youtuber, I don’t do affiliate links. I’m linking to this stuff so you can know where to find it, not because I get a cut every time someone makes a purchase. If I ever decide to sell out and start shilling those weird galaxy projector lights, y’all will be the first to know.